A former colleague of mine—whose name shall not be spoken, neither for joy nor strategy—was so transparently boastful of his tissue-thin associations with “famous psychologists” that I found him, well, rather unlikable as a result of it. Not only did he name-drop at every possible opportunity, but just in case you missed the reference to So-and-So popping up in the conversation about, say, lactose intolerance or Frisbee golf, his office was also visually booby-trapped to produce the same effect. Like some groupie at a rock concert, he’d capitalized on the many photo-ops at various academic conferences so that these grinning photos showed him with his arms draped around a virtual Who’s Who of accommodating (and usually slightly befuddled, or at least mildly inebriated) star scientists.
Why is it that we find “name-dropping” and related behaviors so unappealing in others? Similar to many other social behaviors, the phenomenon of name-dropping is one of those human foibles that is so routine and commonplace that scientists have almost completely overlooked it as a potentially fruitful topic of investigation. An exception to this was a study published earlier this year in the journal Social Influence. In this study, University of Zurich psychologists Carmen Lebherz, Klaus Jonas and Barbara Tomljenovic conducted a controlled experiment in which participants were introduced to a stranger who name-dropped to various degrees. The volunteers were then asked to rate this stranger on several key dimensions.
First, however, Lebherz and her colleagues “operationally defined” the central construct of name-dropping, because simply mentioning a respected person’s name doesn’t necessarily make you a “name-dropper.” If your cousin happens to be a famous actress, or your English professor won a Pulitzer, there might well be instances where it’s considered appropriate to mention his or her name, especially if someone asks you about the connection. Thus, the authors declare that:
We understand name-dropping in our study as an unprompted association with another individual or group; that is, the self-presenter volunteers his/her association to a positive other [Editor’s note: a “positive other” is someone held in especially high esteem by other ingroup members] as opposed to being asked about his/her association by somebody else.
Because the study took place in Zurich, the experimenters decided to use the name of a well-liked national figure, and Roger Federer fit the bill perfectly. The authors write:
In Switzerland, the Swiss tennis star is a revered national hero, adored for both his undisputed confidence and unpretentious demeanor. We expected that an ordinary student’s strong association with such an idol would be perceived as such an obvious attempt to impress, would be discounted as manipulative, and thus would cause less liking of the name-dropping individual.
The participants in the name-dropping experiment were 141 students from the University of Zurich. Each was misled to believe that they would later be participating with a partner—a complete stranger—as part of a study on sports behavior. For now, though, they were to simply exchange a few introductory pleasantries through email. (In actuality, of course, there was no other person on email, just the experimenter sending the participant a pre-scripted message). The students were randomly assigned to one of four “name-dropping conditions” in which the fictitious same-sex partner either: (1) didn’t mention Federer at all; (2) mentioned he (or she) was a fan of Federer; (3) claimed to be a personal friend of Federer, or; (4) claimed to be both Federer’s personal friend and workout buddy. Thus, all participants would have read the following email from their new study partner, “Michael”:
I’ve signed onto that study in which we have to email and introduce ourselves before participating in the sports study. I’m Michael, I’m 24, I share an apartment in Zurich with some former schoolmates and I have just started studying Psychology. So far I like it quite well. I also work part time at the airport, I push wheelchairs and take kids to their flights, stuff like that. It’s fun!
Let’s get started on hobbies and sports, that’s what it’s about, right? Well I’m making an effort to stay in form. :) I like playing Badminton, in the winter I go snowboarding and in the summer I sometimes play beach volleyball at the lake. Besides that I of course follow the sports events in the media.